Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Struggling workers in quarantine zones demand rent waivers for COVID-19 crisis

Residents in one of Phnom Penh’s few remaining quarantined neighborhoods launched a small protest Monday morning in the city’s southwestern Meanchey district to demand subsidized rent while they’re legally unable to go to work.

The protest saw dozens of factory workers gathered on Veng Sreng Boulevard in the Damnak Thom3 village of Stung Meanchey III commune. Their demand comes after Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday implored landlords to suspend rental fees for workers during the ongoing lockdown of some areas, a measure intended to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Though tenants in red zones are struggling even to feed themselves after going for weeks without work, some landlords also claim they’re facing their own difficulties now in repaying debts to the bank.

Among the renters is Sdoeung Seang, a garment worker who rents a room in Damnak Thom3 village. Seang told CamboJA that people in his area pay $70-80 a month to rent a room and that he himself had asked his landlord, a property owner named Krouch Darak, to reduce his rental fee. After some negotiation, Darak said he’d get back to Seang with an answer on Wednesday.

“At first, we asked for a month’s waiver, but the landlord refused and offered us a 20 percent discount. We demanded at least a 50 percent discount,” he said. “They told us that they also borrow money from banks. If the banks offer them some easing, of course, they will do some easing for workers.”

Seang said that if his landlord Darak does not agree, the renters may call on the government for help.

According to Ministry of Labour statistics from late April, the three-week COVID-19 lockdown led to the temporary closure of 206 factories in the economically vital garment, footwear and travel goods sector, including 134 in Phnom Penh and 23 in neighboring Kandal province. In total, the lockdown of the capital and neighboring Takhmao suspended operations at more than 7,000 total factories and businesses, affecting about 1.2 million workers.

After COVID-19 spread in factory settings and the dense housing often rented by factory employees along the city’s western fringe, many of the areas inhabited by workers were designated in April as red zones and heavily restricted to curb the infection rate.

In response to the small protest in Damnak Thom3 village, the Stung Meanchey III commune police administration on Monday asked workers not to gather in large numbers to avoid the spread of COVID-19. In a post on its Facebook page, the administration instead asked the tenants to send representatives to negotiate with their landlords.

That latter group includes people such as Darak, who holds more than 100 rental apartments that house about 500 workers. Darak told CamboJA he owes debt to a bank that he also must repay, and has submitted a request to the lender to delay his loan repayment for one or two months. If he can secure his own waiver, he says he’ll pass it along to the tenants.

“I would offer the workers more easing [but] I am waiting for the answer from the bank. I don’t expect much from them, as they told me the bank does not have such a policy,” he said.

Darak said he had already reduced rent by $10 and is now offering another $10 discount.

“We cannot give them 100 percent free of charge, as if we do this, we will all die. But we can just offer them a delay and when things get better, I will let them pay as much as possible,” he said.

In early April during the partial restriction of some districts in Phnom Penh before the city-wide lockdown measure on April 15, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a 300,000-riel subsidy for families in the blocked areas. Hun Sen also announced the state subsidization of electricity bills for affected people, including families of individuals infected with COVID-19, as well as those who had been placed in quarantine for as long as one to three months.

However, the prime minister later canceled the offer, replacing it with food assistance after the entire city of Phnom Penh was closed in the three-week lockdown order.

Hun Sen had also asked the state-owned utilities services Electricite du Cambodge (EDC) and Phnom Penh Water Supply Autonomous (PPWSA), the second of which is listed on the Cambodian Securities Exchange, to find ways to adapt their fees to help workers stuck in red zones.

PPWSA on Sunday announced it would waive its water rates for March, April and May for 870 rental housing units only in the current red zones. The waived units are inhabited mostly by factory workers and students. EDC​ has not yet introduced any measures to ease the burden on its customers.

Though the lockdown has been lifted from much of the capital metro area, health authorities continue to record new cases of COVID-19.

On Monday alone, the Ministry of Health reported 506 new cases, bringing the total in Cambodia to 19,743 since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. So far, 126 people have died of the illness.

Ath Thorn, president of Cambodian Labor Confederation (CLC) said that, so far, most landlords have not waived rental fees because the private sector has no legal obligation to do so. This leaves property owners to decide whether to follow the government’s appeal.

“The workers’ challenges have remained as some landlords just provide tenants with a rent suspension and require them to pay the old debt when they return to work,” he said.

As workers are unlikely to receive any back pay at all for the time they were suspended from their jobs, paying off that debt could be a heavy burden.

However, Thorn said it is the government’s obligation to help such workers.

“Of course, the state must provide assistance such as food and money to support workers, this is the duty of the state,” he said. “Funding is important, the government has to force companies to pay workers during the suspension. At the same time, the state should provide exemptions for both water and electricity fees.”

Meanwhile, the rent stress in Damnak Thom3 village is also playing out across the capital’s other remaining red zones. Though it remains to be seen what will happen after Monday morning’s protest, at least some landlords elsewhere are deciding to forgo collecting rent from tenants who cannot pay.

Song San is a worker at the Din Han garment factory, which experienced a COVID-19 cluster infection in early April. San currently lives in a rented room in the red-zoned Chambok village of Choam Chao 1 commune of Pur Senchey district, where he said his landlord offered to waive this month of rent.

“I did not know if his offer came after the call from Prime Minister Hun Sen, but this morning he said he would not charge me for a month,” San told CamboJA on Monday. “This eases the burden for workers who are unemployed, have no revenue and are short of food.”

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